When I served this eggplant dish the other night our friends asked, “What’s the difference between Parmesan and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese?” I replied by saying, “Well, they’re kinda the same thing but different.” Looking perplexed, Lol asked, “How can they be the same thing yet different?” It’s no wonder that he’s a successful trial attorney. This is what I told our dinner guests while they ate with gusto.
Parmigiano is an alternative and more authentic spelling for Parmesan but it is much more than that. Parmigiano refers to the province of Parma where the production of Parmigiano cheeses are strictly controlled by Italian law.
In 1934, cheese producers in both the Parma and Reggio-Emilia provinces joined forces with producers in the Modena and Mantua provinces to form an association called the Consorzio del Grana Tipico. Cheese producers from the province of Bologna later joined the group. In 1954, they renamed their group the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano. Hence the name Parmigiano-Reggiano.
My eggplant recipe features properly cooked, but not squishy, rounds of eggplant with a crisp crust, authentic Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and an aromatic tomato sauce. It is melt-in-your-mouth good. No more need be said.
3 medium eggplants (cut crosswise into ¼-inch-thick rounds)
3 ¼ teaspoons salt
5 pounds fresh plum tomatoes
1 ½ cups plus 3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large garlic cloves (chopped fine)
20 fresh basil leaves (tear in half)
¾ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 cup flour
5 large eggs
3 ½ cups Italian bread crumbs
2/3 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (finely grated)
16 ounces whole milk mozzarella (thinly sliced)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Toss eggplant with 2 teaspoons salt in a colander set over a bowl. Let it drain out excess moisture – about 30 minutes.
While eggplant drains, cut a small “X” in bottom of each tomato with a sharp paring knife and blanch them in a 5-quart pot of boiling water for 1 minute. Make sure the water is boiling before adding tomatoes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer tomatoes to a cutting board and, when cool enough to handle, peel off skin beginning from scored end. Coarsely chop tomatoes, then purée in batches in a blender.
Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a 5-quart heavy pot over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking. Add garlic and sauté, stirring, until golden, about 30 seconds. Add tomato purée, basil, 1 teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon pepper, and red pepper flakes. Simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally until slightly thickened – about 25 to 30 minutes. Set aside.
Stir together flour, remaining ¼ teaspoon salt and remaining ¼ teaspoon pepper in a shallow bowl. Lightly beat eggs in a second shallow bowl. In a third shallow bowl, stir together bread crumbs and 1/3 cup Parmesan. Set all three aside.
Gently wipe each eggplant slice with a paper towel to remove excess moisture and salt. Working with one slice at a time, dredge eggplant in flour, then dip in egg, letting excess drip off, and dredge in bread crumbs until evenly coated. Transfer eggplant to sheets of wax paper, arranging slices in a single layer. Heat remaining 1 1/2 cups oil in a deep skillet over moderately high heat and fry eggplant for 3 – 4 minutes per side. Transfer with tongs to paper towels to drain. Set aside.
Spread 1 cup tomato sauce in bottom of a rectangular (11x13x2-inch) baking dish. Arrange one-third of eggplant slices in 1 layer over sauce, overlapping slightly. Cover eggplant with one-third of remaining sauce and one-third of mozzarella. Continue layering with remaining eggplant, sauce, and mozzarella. Sprinkle top with remaining 1/3 cup Parmesan.
Bake, uncovered, until cheese is melted and golden and sauce is bubbling – about 35 to 40 minutes. Serve with a fresh garden salad and fresh-baked French bread hot from the oven.